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A Hand for the Helpless

Reverend Philip Stringer

Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

LET US PRAY: Gracious Lord, Bread of Life, feed us with your Word, and speak to our hearts, that we may love and serve only you, now and forever. AMEN

Mower wouldn’t start.

Neighbor— I don’t know if it is big problem or little— but if you come and look, I know that we’ll know within 5 minutes if it is something that can be fixed here or if I need a mechanic.

A good neighbor is a treasure— a blessing. When you need a helping hand, it’s good to know where to go, and who you can depend on.

Today, Matthew shows us that Jesus will be there for us when we need him. Or better said: Matthew shows us that we all need Jesus— and we can rely on Jesus to be there for us.

We love it when things go the way they are supposed to. The problem is that things often DON’T go the way they should. The Pharisees were keepers of the law, and the law was there to make sure that things would go the way they are supposed to— make sure that the proper order of things is maintained.

God puts things in order.

The law of God maintains that order. Or at least that is the idea. But things often do go the way they should.

The Pharisees adhered to the law and held others accountable to the law because they believed that this would keep things “right.” They believed those who kept the law were RIGHTeous. And those who did not, were UNrighteous.

Sin is a monkey wrench in the order of things, however. It breaks the order. Like a broken vase— Sin breaks relationship, so even if the pieces are in the right place— it may look right, but it still won’t hold water.

As I read our gospel text for today, there were several themes that were recurring that stood out to me. One of those was a theme of hands.

MATTHEW might be said to represent the hand of oppression.

Matthew was not looking for righteousness. He was sitting at his tax booth doing his job— which happened to be forcing people to pay taxes to an occupying army— but also to pay a little extra for him. The hand of a thief. That wasn’t right.

He wasn’t looking for Jesus, but Jesus came looking for him, and it changed his life.

Jesus was not only in the company of tax collectors and sinners— he was seated at a table and eating with them!! Something about Jesus attracted them, and the sense is that he was changing their lives, too.

The PHARISEES might be understood to represent the hand of judgement.

When the Pharisees were confused by this, Jesus made a simple statement that put everything into perspective. Quoting Hosea, he told them that adhering to the law for the mere purpose of following rules misses the point.

The reason God put things in order in the first place is because God loves creation. If loving relationships have been broken, they can’t be healed by rules; they can only be healed with love. “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”—

“I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice.”

As if to drive this message home, Matthew surrounds this statement with examples of Jesus choosing love and mercy over a shallow adherence to notions of “right” and “wrong.” His calling of Matthew and eating with sinners is one example, but following his statement are two more that I think are particularly noteworthy.

The daughter of the leader of the synagogue, and the woman with the hemorrhaging menstrual flow.

In those days, women were generally devalued to begin with— but here were some extreme examples.

Regarding the Leader of the synagogue’s daughter— He might represent for us the hand of despair. He tells Jesus that his daughter has died, and he asks Jesus to come and touch her— “come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” Everybody knew that to touch a dead body would make one “unclean” by strict adherence to the law— But “Jesus got up and followed him.”

And regarding the woman with the hemorrhage— She might represent for us the hand of a beggar. The law required her to stay isolated from others. A woman with a menstrual flow was considered “unclean,” — so for her to sneak into a crowd— and then to dare to touch Jesus— it was actually a crime!

But, “Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, ‘Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.’”

“….take heart, DAUGHTER.”

Another theme in our text: “daughter.”

Jesus’ compassion for this woman is as deep as the compassion of the man whose daughter had died. When Jesus reached the house where the girl was, Matthew tells us that Jesus, “took her by the hand, and the girl got up.”

Jesus is the hand of salvation. He is the hand of new life. He is the hand of hope and of love.

What was true for them is true for us, too.

Because we find ourselves broken, too. Sometimes by our own hand (Paul: “why do I do the things I do not want to do?”), and sometimes by the hands of others. But in either case, we are helpless— broken vessels. We cannot heal ourselves. But Jesus lays his hand on you. In the waters of your baptism he touches you with love and mercy.

With the hand of forgiveness, and new life.

“A helping hand” is a phrase often used when describing assistance. But what Jesus does is more than this. The help that Jesus gives is for the help-LESS.

Jesus does not meet us halfway. Jesus comes all the way to us.

Dead girls cannot reach out their hands. Jesus did the reaching— he took her by the hand.

Matthew didn’t seek out Jesus— Jesus met him at the tax booth.

And when Jesus reaches out— he gives new life. Life rooted in love and mercy— life that is expressed in love and mercy.

Jesus calls you and me to lives that extend the hand of God’s mercy to others.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has a saying to summarize our mission: “God’s work. Our hands.”

A little over a week ago, at our synod assembly, Bishop Smith challenged the congregations of North Carolina to reach out the hand of God’s mercy to refugees, and he set a goal that by the end of this year, 70% of our congregations will be directly involved in offering support to refugees.

I’m curious why the goal was set at 70%— perhaps to keep it within the realm of being understood as an invitation. 100% sounds more like a mandate or expectation. But who are the 70%— is that just the bigger congregations? Or the congregations that aren’t busy? I don’t think so. I think we are fully capable of being among the 70%. Being “involved” doesn’t mean we need to be shouldering the entire responsibility ourselves.

Lutherans in America have a long history of refugee resettlement.

In 1918, Lutherans helped resettle refugees from the first world war. After WWII, Lutherans settled displaced persons from Germany and Eastern Europe. For 80 years, the work of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services has continued to grow, helping more than half a million refugees— from:

Hungarians fleeing the Soviet Union in the 1950’s and Cubans fleeing Castro,

Ugandans persecuted by Idi Amin.

Vietnamese, Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians, Albanians, Bosnians. People from Sudan, Burma, Tibet, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Iran, Liberia and Ukraine and more.

This is an appeal to you and me— to us.

Because the world is broken…… and keeps breaking.

But the hand of Jesus continues to reach out to a broken world with love and mercy.

To those pushed to the edges, the compassion of Jesus compels us to offer a hand to the helpless.

I believe that our congregation needs to have a conversation about how we can partner with others in helping to resettle refugees.

At our council meeting today, I will be asking council members to consider how we might be involved in efforts to support refugees. Take time to consider those possibilities yourselves, too— and then share your thoughts.

The hand of Jesus rests upon us— giving us life. Drawing us forth— God’s mercy upon us— and through us.

God’s work. Our hands.



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